Peter Lovenheim, Rochester Beacon, December 23, 2021
“Jingle Bells” is one of the most performed and well-known secular holiday songs ever written, not only in the United States, but around the world. It’s the first song to have been broadcast from space—by Gemini 6 astronauts nine days before Christmas in 1965. It’s regularly been sung at the White House—most recently by President Barack Obama and his family upon lighting the National Christmas Tree in 2016.
But “Jingle Bells” isn’t being sung anymore at Brighton’s Council Rock Primary School.
“Jingle Bells,” explained Council Rock principal Matt Tappon in an email, has been replaced with other songs that don’t have “the potential to be controversial or offensive.”
“Jingle Bells” offensive? How so?
Tappon and other staff confirmed by email that the decision to remove the song was based in part on information in a 2017 article written by professor Kyna Hamill, director of Boston University’s Core Curriculum. Hamill’s article is a deep dive (nearly 12,000 words including appendices and footnotes) into the origin of “Jingle Bells,” the life of its composer, James L. Pierpont, and the popularity of sleigh songs in the mid-1800s. She found documents showing that the song’s first public performance may have occurred in 1857 at a Boston minstrel show. Minstrelsy was a then-popular form of entertainment in which white actors performed in blackface.
But when told that Council Rock has removed ‘Jingle Bells” based partly on her research, Hamill responded in an email: “I am actually quite shocked the school would remove the song from the repertoire. … I, in no way, recommended that it stopped being sung by children.”
Hamill, who has spoken to media and individuals nationally and internationally about her research, added that this is the first time she’s heard of a school removing the song from its repertoire.
When I shared Hamill’s response with Council Rock staff, Allison Rioux, Brighton Central School District assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, offered a different reason for removing “Jingle Bells.” She wrote:
Some suggest that the use of collars on slaves with bells to send an alert that they were running away is connected to the origin of the song Jingle Bells. While we are not taking a stance to whether that is true or not, we do feel strongly that this line of thinking is not in agreement with our district beliefs to value all cultures and experiences of our students.
“For this reason,” Rioux concluded, “along with the idea that there are hundreds of other 5 note songs, we made the decision to not teach the song directly to all students.”
A quick Google search shows that bells on horses were common as far back as Roman times. The linkage of “sleigh bells” with slave bells is not addressed in Hamill’s paper. When I asked Hamill about this, she responded:
The use of bells on enslaved peoples may be true, but there is no connection to the song that I have discovered in my research. Perhaps finding a well-referenced source for this claim might be in order if that is what (school officials) want to determine as the cause for not singing it.
I first learned that Council Rock had dropped “Jingle Bells” from a notice posted earlier this year on the district’s public website. In a section on “Diversity and Equity,” the district chronicles its years-long anti-racist, anti-bias initiative, including the assessment of curriculum and teaching practices through a lens of being inclusive and culturally responsive.
Second-grade teachers, for example, noted their priority of making lessons “representative of our community of learners and their diverse backgrounds.” (Diversity consultants hired by the district have advised Council Rock teachers to “move away” from using gendered terms such as “Boys and Girls” and instead refer to students as “learners,” “friends,” “thinkers,” or “Council Rock Citizens.”)
In that same update, a Council Rock music teacher reported that some songs they’d been teaching were now found to have a “questionable past.” These songs are “no longer in our repertoire,” the music teacher wrote, and have been replaced by “more contemporary and relevant content.”
Some of the songs, such as “Jump Jim Joe” (original title: “Jump Jim Crow”) and “Ching a Ring Chaw” (written in supposed southern Black dialect), clearly are racist in conception or lyrics. The concern with others, such as “Cumberland Gap” (an Appalachian folk song played on banjo or fiddle) and “Jingle Bells,” is unclear.